When Araceli Esparza heard a six-year old African-American girl read a poem about her love for Madison, it made Esparza want to cry.
“I want her to grow up and still feel that way. She represented to me a hope; can we fix, before she notices, this terrible inequity in our city?” Esparza asks.
To Esparza, a Madison poet, the girl’s words represent the power of poetry. But the power is often limited; even though Esparza has had multiple works published, she knows that poems don’t usually reach a wide audience.
“With a literary journal, only so many people are going to read it, and I want to write for people who don’t read poetry,” she said.
This summer, thanks to Metro Transit’s Bus Lines poetry project, local poets, including Esparza and the six-year-old girl, will get to see their words not only jump off the page, but whiz by in traffic. The winning poets were honored last week at a reception at the American Family DreamBank.
“This is a very public display of public institutions working together," said Edgewood College professor Carrie Firman. "Especially given the political climate in the whole country, it’s important to see that cooperation can happen."
This year, some poems will be displayed on the outside of the bus, some will be printed on transfer cards and a few will be featured in the ride guides. All poems will be viewable on the Madison Metro website.
Due to limited space, poems are limited to three to five lines. Individuals can submit haikus, short poems, or excerpts from longer poems.
The project was started in 2009 by then-Madison Poet Laureate Fabu, who wanted to get poetry into unusual places and give high school students a platform to publish their work. The program started small; Fabu and Karin Wolf, arts program administrator for the Madison Arts Commision, had to scrape together funds to make up for the ad space the poems would replace.
They received only nine submissions, which were then featured inside select buses throughout the city. When winners were selected, Fabu hosted a small reception, bringing her own tablecloth and using her own funds to foot the bill.
But even with these small beginnings, the response was significant.
“Metro got such tremendous feedback from their ridership — it’s making people happier to ride the bus,” Wolf said.
Since then, the project has seen huge growth. Originally only for high school students, the contest has since expanded to include all ages, from elementary school to adults over 18. Over 300 poems were submitted this year, including, for the first time, Spanish-language contributions.
Oscar Mireles, the current Madison Poet Laureate, sees the acceptance of bilingual poems as “a recognition of the growing Latino population in Madison.”
Mireles had the task of reviewing 300 poems to select the top 30. This involved reading them multiple times.
“When I went back the second time, I read them out loud, because sometimes when you read them out loud they change,” Mireles said.
The theme of the poems was “Write your Madison.” Poets were instructed to “help us see what you see and hear what you hear.” In response, individuals submitted poems about the Capitol, sunsets, the farmers' market, and even the Little Free Libraries around town, Mireles said.
The top 30 were then handed over to Firman’s typography class at Edgewood College. Firman, an assistant professor in graphic design and multimedia, had her students pick poems and design graphics that highlighted the themes of the poem.
Firman believes the project is beneficial because it gives her students a chance to work with an outside client, as well as see the tangible results of their efforts.
“For the students, it’s pretty amazing to see your work printed that large and in the real world,” Firman said. For graphic designers, all to often, “it’s all computer based and you don’t get to see the actual thing.”
After the graphics were completed, the poets were publicly recognized for their work at a reception. Poets, family members and supporters packed into the American Family Insurance DreamBank to honor the poets and hear their winning selections. Winners were also given a copy of the graphic designed for their poem.
The poets ranged from nervous elementary school kids to published authors.
“We probably had a 70 to 80 year span from oldest writer to the youngest writer. Poetry really is for everybody. We want to bring poetry to the community and bring the community back to poetry,” Mireles said.
One small boy had been selected to recite his poem in Spanish. The poem explained that he loved buses, because they bring him to parks. Too nervous to read it by himself, Mireles had the whole audience help him out and read the poem with him.
To Mireles, this story illustrates why the program is valuable, as it displays the power of poetry to a younger generation.
“I wish when I was younger that I would have been more exposed to poetry. The poetry I was exposed to was in a dusty old book and was by some old guy I’d never heard of, and it seemed so distant,” Mireles said. “With all this poetry, it’s so local and Madison-based, and it seems very alive.”